How to Master and Control Your Emotions Based From Thirty-Plus Years of Brain Research

I don’t know about you but maybe…

You’re someone who finds it difficult to bounce back after an unexpected event happens in your life. Maybe it’s a loss of a loved one, a job,a failure, or any issue you just didn’t perceive to happen.

Maybe you do not feel comfortable meeting new people or just the thought of it makes you anxious.

Maybe you are constantly labeled as insensitive, Debbie downer, hyperactive, or someone with lack of focus.

I really don’t know. What I do know is that all of us have some issues that we wish we can control to live the life we truly want.

Most of the time, these fall under the huge umbrella of emotions. Emotions play a huge part in our performance and productivity.

If your emotions are keeping you from achieving anything or getting in the way of your relationship, then it’s worthy to do a quick reflection and adjust necessarily.

As Oscar Wilde said in the book The Picture of Dorian Gray:

“I don’t want to be at the mercy of my emotions. I want to use them, to enjoy them, and to dominate them.”

What Does Thirty-Plus Years of Research Tell Us About Emotions

For years, cognitive psychologists thought that emotion disrupts cognitive function. But the thirty-plus years of research done by neuroscientist Richard Davidson showed a different conclusion. He performed several experiments, studies and kept redoing them as latest technology arise. He went on to discuss these findings in his book The Emotional Life of Your Brain.

Dr. Davidson found startling findings about emotions:

First: The circuitry of the emotional brain often overlaps with that of the rational, thinking brain.

Second: Each person has a unique emotional profile just as we have our own unique fingerprint.

Third: Our emotional style is the result of brain activity that is laid down in our early years by the genes we inherited from our parents and experiences we have.

It may be very troubling to find out that our emotions are actually influenced by our genes. Does that mean we cannot change it?

The good news is that:

“The emotional circuitry in the brain is not forever fixed.”

Therefore, with some exercise and consistency, you can adjust the neural connections of your emotions.

Dr. Davidson identified six emotional styles which refer to your consistent way of responding to what happens to you. He came up with these conclusions because his team found out specific, identifiable brain circuits through different lab procedures they performed.

As Dr. Davidson has said:

“Anything having to do with human behavior, feelings and ways of thinking arise from the brain, so any valid classification must also be based on the brain.”

He identified the six Emotional Styles as:

  • Resilience
  • Social Intuition
  • Self-Awareness
  • Outlook
  • Sensitivity to Context
  • Attention

Each dimension is like a continuum. Some people are at the extremes (too positive or too negative) and some fall at the middle. There’s no one best side. It only depends on how your emotional style is affecting your life. Wherever you are in the continuum will determine the kind of intervention you need.

The Six Emotional Styles That Run In Your Brain and How to Tame Them

1. Challenge the Accuracy of Your Thoughts

Resilience shows whether you easily get up after a major setback in life or you cower in misery. Some events take time for us to recover like when someone we love dies. But if recovery impedes the way you function in life, then you have to do something about it.

People who are Fast to Recover have a strong activation in the left prefrontal cortex and strong connection with the amygdala. The opposite happens when you are Slow to Recover.

The left prefrontal cortex is involved in promoting positive feelings and helps to inhibit the negative emotions generated by some limbic structures such as the amygdalae.

Amygdala is responsible for detecting fear and preparing for emergencies. It is also associated with fear conditioning because it stores memories of events and relates it to future events. Hyperactivity of the amygdala has been linked to fear and anxiety disorders.

If you think you are very slow to recover, then you have to increase the activity in your prefrontal cortex. Start with a simple exercise like mindfulness of breathing and just be more conscious of other good things that happen to you.
When you do this, you strengthen the connection between the prefrontal cortex and amygdala that promotes balance to your emotions.

Dr. Davidson also encourages cognitive reappraisal training where you reframe an adversity that it is not as extreme as it should be. He said:

“Rather than viewing the mistake as representative of your work, you are trained to realize that it was an anomaly and could have happened to anyone. By challenging the accuracy of your thoughts, the cognitive appraisal can help you reframe the causes of your behavior and the distress.”

2. Be More Adept at Reading Language of Face and Eyes

Social Intuition shows how good you are in picking up social signals. You often notice social cues of other people. It’s as if you could understand them from their body language alone.

A person who is on the positive extreme of Social Intuition shows a high level of fusiform activation and low to moderate amygdala activity.

Fusiform gyrus has been linked with neural pathways involved in recognition and deciphering faces. Low level of activation in the fusiform area is characterized by failure to make eye contact and has difficulty identifying what emotion a face is conveying.

To improve your social intuition, you have to highly engage your fusiform. Pay attention to the reactions and expressions of others. One way you can do this is through “people watching.”

Go outside, focus on few people and observe their faces, reactions and body language. Try to predict what they will do next based on their movements and expressions. You can get close enough to overhear them see if your predictions are correct.

Pay attention also to people’s eyes because it signals their true emotional state. Dr. Davidson has said:

“By making you more adept at reading the language of faces and eyes, this training should also cause you to fixate more on them, if only because they are now more meaningful and interesting to you.”

3. Keep Your Mind From Creating False Conclusions

Self-Awareness refers to how well aware you are with your own body signals, emotions and what they tell you.

Some people deny experiencing stress and anxiety even when their bodies are already showing these signs. It’s not because they consciously lie about them, but research shows they are really oblivious to what is happening inside them.

People on the extreme positive side of self-awareness continuum have a greater activation in the insula. If you have a low level of self-awareness, you have decreased activation in your insula.

The insula contains what is called the viscerotopic map of the body. It receives signals from the visceral organs and sends signals back to the organs instructing them what to do such as increased heart rate or inhale rapidly.

Having a high level of self-awareness may sometimes cause panic disorder. For example, when you noticed a sudden increase in heart rate, you automatically interpret it as a sign of heart problems.

Dr. Davidson suggests what we call “cognitive reframing” where you learn to reframe your internal body cues in a positive way instead of treating them as a danger. The key is to keep your mind from creating immediate false conclusions on whatever you feel. He said:

“The idea is to alter your relationship to your thoughts, emotions, and bodily sensations so that you do not become entangled in an endless, self-reinforcing loop and leap to the conclusion that some aspect of what you are feeling portends to doom.”

If you want to be sure about what you feel, its best to see a doctor to validate your conclusions. Otherwise, do not complicate them in your mind yet.

Photo by Pete Bellis on Unsplash

4. Train Your Brain That Your Imagined Future Will Arrive

Outlook refers to how long you can sustain positive emotion. If you mostly maintain a high level of energy even during trying times, you are in the positive extreme of the Outlook Style.

A person with a high positive outlook has high activity in the prefrontal cortex and ventral striatum which processes the sense of reward. If you are on the negative side of outlook style, you show low activity and weaker connections between prefrontal cortex and ventral striatum.

If you want to move on the positive side of Outlook, support your prefrontal cortex by planning. Since the ventral striatum processes reward, seek out situations that tempt you to give in to immediate reward then resist it.

For example, you need to finish something, yet, the bed is tempting you to sleep. Plan ahead on how to combat that temptation. To support your ventral striatum, identify the greater reward. If you give in to sleeping, you would cram later to finish your work. But if you finish your work, then you can reward yourself the sleep you need however long you want it to be.

After finishing the task, you have to really reward yourself. This trains your brain to believe that your imagined future will eventually arrive.

5. Minimize the Different Contexts You Are In

Sensitivity to Context refers to how you regulate your responses based on the context you are in.

You have high sensitivity to context when you are very keen on how you behave outside and change the way you act based on where you are. You’re like a chameleon. You easily adapt where you are. The only consequence of this is you lose track of your genuine self because you often alter your behavior.

People who are very tuned in to context have strong connections from the hippocampus to areas in the prefrontal cortex that controls the executive functions. People who are tuned out or who are not very sensitive to context have weaker connections.

Hippocampus is mostly associated with processing memories. Dr. Davidson and his team found that the anterior hippocampus is also involved in regulating behavioral inhibition in response to different contexts.

If you keep adjusting your behavior that it becomes confusing, minimize the different contexts you are in. This will limit you from constantly changing your response to situations. Attend events where there are lots of people you know where you can be comfortable with who you really are.

6. Be Mindful Of What’s Going On Around You

You would be surprised that Attention is included under the emotional styles. Attention shows how sharp your focus is.

Whether you are too focused when doing something and people complain that you fail to notice them when they’re talking. Or very unfocused that you can’t help jumping from one task to another without finishing what you’ve started.

If you are Too Focused, you have greater activation in the prefrontal and parietal cortex which form a circuit for selective attention. The parietal cortex points your attention to a specific target while prefrontal cortex maintains that attention.

If you are Too Unfocused, your prefrontal cortex is underactive that makes you jump from one stimulus to another.

In my post How to Train Your Brain to Stay Focused, I explained some reasons why our focus is being disrupted based on the research by another neuroscientist Adam Gazzaley.

To improve your focus, minimize the distractions to help you attend to important things. If you find that you’re always checking your notifications, set aside your gadgets until you finish what you’re supposed to do.

If you are too focused, play a music in the background or keep your door open while you working to remind you that there are other things aside from what you are currently focusing on. Set also cues like notes and alarm to break your concentration which will force you to check what happens around you.

Train Your Brain In Ways That Will Support Your Emotional Style

By being aware of your emotional style, you can create an environment that supports it. You can also support your brain through activities that will help modify the circuitry that underlies each emotional profile.

When you are familiar with your emotional style, you can accept who you are or do some necessary changes in your lifestyle and activity.

You have the power to change your life by taking control of your emotions. Train your brain in ways that will support your emotional style and shift where you are in each dimension of emotional style.

Want to Fuel Your Performance?

I’ve created a checklist to help you find out if you are operating based on your inner drives. If you are driven inside, your performance and life become better.

Here’s the cheat sheet for you!